Upgrading the hardware of the EX490

This is a continuation from my previous post, found here.

I finally received the debug board for the EX490 and the much anticipated four Western Digital 3TB Red disk drives. I had a bit of an episode with customs here in Denmark and ended up paying a massive premium for the debug board, so I was really hoping it would be worth the added cost.

Vovtec cable close vovtec cable closerI opted for the VGA/PS2 assembly, as the VGA only was not available at the time I was building this project. From what I know a USB keyboard should work equally well. The serial port I had no use for, so I decided on the 80$ unit.

I hope it shows on the pictures, but if you’re in doubt, the assembly kit is an excellent value and has great build quality. I set to work disassembling the server to install the debug cable, you can find a complete guide to the disassembly itself here. You may also want to read this regarding where to place the jumper to unlock the BIOS.

Once I had finished the disassembly I carefully removed the CPU heatsink, used a cleaning solution to remove the excess thermal paste from the heatsink and installed my new CPU with fresh thermal paste. I chose an E6400 for this project, as it’s much faster than the Celeron processor the unit shipped with, and shouldn’t cause any thermal issues. I decided against upgrading the memory, two gigabytes should be sufficient for the needs I have, and if not – it’s an easy upgrade.

I played around with various mounting options for the debug cable, but ended up running it up next to the S-ATA backplane and having it on the top of the server.

Remember to exercise extreme caution when re-assembling the server. You’re at risk of damaging the cable from the assembly when sliding the motherboard/PSU tray back in to the case. I got around it by pulling slightly and very carefully on the cable as I slid the assembly back in place.

debug cable installed

Clearly this wasn’t done with aesthetics in mind. I’ve seen options where users have drilled holes in the case and mounted the assembly on the side with velcro, or modified the back to install it there – even using the top drive bay for the assembly kit. Since I’m using all four drive bays I don’t have the latter option and the others do not appeal to me terribly.

I took a closer look at the assembly kit and realized that the cable itself would easily detach from the connector on the PCB itself. This allows me to leave the cable in place within the server and simply remove the assembly. I considered stuffing it down the back of the server, but there seemed to be ample room on the top of the unit, so I decided to test it out.

VGA assembly cablePlacing the cable on top, like this, allowed me to slide the case top back on without a hitch. Now I have the connector cable readily available whenever I require it – without having to disassemble the entire unit. This way, when I have to troubleshoot, I merely need to remove the top cover by sliding out a few drives and pressing the plastic clip holding it in place, re-attach the assembly and away we go.

I installed the four hard-drives I’d purchased for this project in to their drive bays, attached a monitor and a PS/2 keyboard to the assembly kit and powered on the server. It worked without a hitch.

If you’re reading this because you’re considering purchasing the debug board yourself, please do not hesitate. It’s completely worth it. Being able to change boot devices, change fan settings and connect a monitor if something goes wrong – it’s just absolutely essential. Build one yourself or get one from Vovtec, it matters not, if you plan to fiddle around you absolutely must have this capability.

So, with the servers top cover open, keyboard and monitor connected, I set about installing Ubuntu Server 12.10.

The HP MediaSmart EX490 Home Server

Introduction and considerations.

For a long time I’ve been pondering building myself a home server. To host my media files, handle my file transfers and save me from having to have a 24/7 turned on workstation. The primary motivation for such an endeavour has been the reduction of my electricity bill – not to mention the wide array of capabilities offered by such an item.

It hasn’t amounted to more than a loose collection of ideas and thoughts for years on end, but about a month ago I decided that the time had come. I had been given a HP MediaSmart EX490 about a year ago, but had only fiddled with it a little bit before it ended up in a state of permanent shut-off.

I received it without disc drives, which means that the original operating system was lost – I had no installation media and HP had discontinued support of the unit. As such I figured I’d look at commercial NAS options to see if I could find something sparkling new that would suit my needs. I looked at Synology, QNAP and ReadyNAS offerings. I read exhaustive amounts of reviews, opinions, arguments and looked at the available features and assisting communities. I was inches away from adding a ReadyNAS Ultra 6 to my basket, when I heard that NetGear had dropped support for it – and were introducing new models. Great, I thought, until I looked at the price. At almost twice the price I decided that it wasn’t worth the investment (USD $ 1000 at the time of this post for the 516.) and that I didn’t much care for the way NetGear decided to leave it’s existing customers out in the cold on a now dead platform, which would not receive updates – despite the hardware seemingly being more than capable of future versions.

That’s when I decided to take another look at the MediaSmart server, which by now was covered in thick layer of dust and rotting away silently in a closet.

MediaSmartFrontFor my money, this is a really attractive piece of kit. The build quality is very good and the aesthetics are great as well.

It has four drive bays, which is two less than I had initially planned for, but it should suffice for a long while to come. Naturally all drive bays are hot-swappable and easily accessible – as evidenced from the photo here:

MediaSmartOpened

My concerns were primarily that;

  • The unit is headless – i.e. one cannot connect a monitor to it.
  • The unit can only boot up from the first drive in the array.
  • I had none of the original software or installation media.
  • Concerned about the Celeron CPU contained within the unit, and whether it had sufficient processing power for my needs. First and foremost, the Plex Media Server. Specifically transcoding of media.

Now, before I could settle on the unit for permanent use I decided to test it out – and see if I could even load anything on to it.

I grabbed an old Western Digital drive, popped it in an external usb enclosure, connected it to a spare computer and began the process of installing Ubuntu Desktop on it. Once Ubuntu Desktop was up and running, I made sure to allow remote connections and disconnected the drive. I pushed it in to the first drive-bay of the EX490 – and lo and behold, it booted! I got the assigned IP address from my router and attempted a VNC(I highly recommend Tight VNC for this.) connection to the device and got in! At this point I was completely ecstatic – I had in no way anticipated that this method would actually work, much less that it would work so flawlessly.

I quickly populated the server with more junk drives on to which I dropped various media and installed the Plex Server application.

In short order I was up and running, and was able to access my content through both my DLNA enabled Samsung blu-ray player and the Plex Client application.

Proof of concept done, it was time to address the concerns I had – which after a lot of reading has resulted in the following:

  • Bought a second hand Core 2 Duo E6400 CPU, which will fit in to the socket, upgrade the processing power of my unit and won’t make it hotter than the surface of the sun.
  • Placed an order for a VGA/PS2 Debug cable, courtesy of Vovtech, which I’m currently awaiting delivery on. This will allow me to, finally, access the BIOS of my device, change boot priority and generally poke around the other options available. This will greatly help with troubleshooting if the network connection fails, or if I want to install an operating system from a flash drive.
  • Placed an order for 4 Western Digital 3 TB Red drives. These seem like the most obvious choice for a home server setup. They do cost a bit more than other drives with this capacity, but feature a five year warranty, have RAID specific benefits and come with a five year warranty from Western Digital. I am currently awaiting delivery on these as well.

As I’m awaiting delivery I am reading up on Ubuntu server, which I will attempt to load on to the server. While the Ubuntu Desktop client has been kind to me, it seems fruitless to utilize it for any extended period as a primary operating system on a server – and I’ve been looking for an excuse to learn Ubuntu Server.

I plan on following up on this post with the hardware upgrades, specifically if I managed to perform them without screwing everything up, after which I will detail my Ubuntu Server experience and possibly provide help to others who are looking to try their hand at this as well.

My goal is to set up the server with the four drives in a Raid 5 configuration to maximize available space and – hopefully – ensure that data loss is highly unlikely in the event of drive failure. Backups will be done on external drives for now, but at a later date I will likely be utilizing the e-sata port on the server to attach an external 4 drive-bay enclosure for proper backups.

The famous esata port - not too shabby with the extra USB connections either.

The famous esata port – not too shabby with the extra USB connections either.

This post has already become long enough, considering it contains no information that could be said to be terribly useful to anyone. I will, to the best of my ability, document both the hardware upgrades and the installation of Ubuntu Server – with any luck there’s one or two people who could benefit, and if not, that’s okay too. 😉